REVIEW: “Choir Boy” sings and soars
The experience of seeing the Broadway premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is transcendent. The play itself, its structure and devices, is hardly revolutionary, but its substance and very presence on Broadway feels seismic—a fact that in turn just might make it revolutionary, after all.
If empathy is the theatre’s calling card, and diverse representation its much-welcomed, if not essential zeitgeist, I can’t think of a better play for this moment than “Choir Boy”. Finely acted and beautifully told, the first Broadway opening of 2019 portends a bounteous second-half to the season, and its red-hot simmering story and soaring music offer a nice complement to the deep freeze of winter.
“Choir Boy” follows one eventful school year on the tony campus of the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys—an elite school “dedicated to the education of strong, ethical black men”. At open, rising senior Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a memorable Broadway debut), poised to serve as choir lead of Drew’s famous a capella group, steps forward to sing the lead vocals of school anthem “Trust and Obey”, per tradition.
Pharus is effeminate—gay but not out, both protected and tormented by the bubble of his curated existence in which an agree-to-ignore culture about his sexuality and swish affords him both relative comfort but also a life of secret fear and repression. The “lil Sweet Boy” is tolerated and admired for his talent, until he isn’t.
As he radiantly sings, effortless and divine, fellow choir member Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson), a rising junior, whispers homophobic insults to distract Pharus from the ceremonial task at hand—“sissy!”, “This faggot ass Nigga.”—succeeding in jolting him from the moment and setting up a cycle of tension and revenge that will ripple across the coming school year.
Pharus may be effeminate, but he is determined and strong—some might even say cocky with a toothy smile. That’s a shield, of course, hard won—a survival instinct—but also a reflection of his incipient self-confidence. And that’s what makes his character so exquisitely captivating, even revolutionary, on stage: a queer, self-possessed, black teenager demanding his dignity and his space in this world.
At its core, that is what “Choir Boy” is all about. The dynamics of the choir, Pharus’ friendship with his hunky, sweet-hearted jock of a roommate Anthony Justin “AJ” James (John Clay, III), and a tortured, forbidden love with a fellow closeted student (no spoilers) each serve to explore aspects of Pharus’ rocky attempt to conquer centuries of hate and intolerance, navigating systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and the minefield that is toxic masculinity to claim his equality and his very personhood.
Punctuating the story are a series of black spirituals performed by the choir, with rocking gospel arrangements by Jason Michael Webb and ecstatic choreography by Camille A. Brown. The songs themselves are elegies of hope in the face of despair, roadmaps (sometimes literally) to freedom, and so it is that they carry Pharus with the weight of history but also the soar of tomorrow’s promise.
Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), Bobby’s uncle and guardian of tradition in an age where it is tested daily, mediates among the boys to mete out a peace that upholds the old institution he serves as culture catches up and crashes around him. He tells Pharus to “tighten up”—aka straighten up—instead of encouraging self-expression, and a shattering conclusion at his hand is dictated more by adherence to rules than attention to justice. But then again, when has a Christian institution ever been particularly sensitive to the development of its gay students?
On the school’s 50th anniversary, the very white, retired professor Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton) returns to campus and becomes the faculty sponsor for the choir while leading an experimental course in “thinking” that both challenges and riles his students. This character, the only white person on stage, offers the most glaringly false note in the entire play. We are told he marched with MLK and yet he awkwardly interacts with his black students, leading with a CPT (“colored people time”) joke. He’s upheld as some trailblazing civil rights ally, but his presence is never dramatically justified, and he vanishes from the story before resolution.
Mr. McCraney, an Academy Award winner for his screenplay to “Moonlight”, offers thematic continuity in this work, commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club and no doubt one of the most daring plays it has produced to date, first seen at their Off-Broadway space in 2013.
The storytelling conventionally beats out more like a movie than a play, but the substance of the story itself could not be more unexplored or unconventional for the stage. Refreshing, insightful, stirring, and deeply human, Mr. McCraney’s script captures moments of the queer experience both large and small with abounding respect, detail, and truth. Though occasionally pat, his dialogue gives vivid voice to young black men, and at least one young queer black man. And that is important.
Director Trip Cullman worked wonders with Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other” and similarly evokes from his ensemble here tender portraits of young black men in discovery, their attendant bluster and brotherhood on view, weaving an evening of song and spoken word that is seamless, and effectively working with his design team, including set and costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, to firmly establish shifting senses of place amid a palette of fire-engine red cinderblock. That red is no mistake—it’s heat and it’s blood.
At Drew, Pharus discovers, for the first time, precious space to let him simply be. Any person who has ever been out of step with the place and time in which they live can relate. In the end, though, that space isn’t large enough. But the world is. And plays like “Choir Boy” make it increasingly so.
Bottom Line: The Broadway premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” at Manhattan Theatre Club, finely acted and beautifully told, is transcendent. The very presence of this play on Broadway about a black, queer teenage boy navigating private, Christian Prep school life is seismic, and Jeremy Pope offers a memorable debut in this timely and important work.
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 8, 2019
Final Performance: March 10, 2019